The Place Of The Bible In Protestant Thought

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The first generation of Protestants regarded an appeal to the supreme authority of the Bible as both theologically correct and ecclesiastically liberating. The authority of the pope could be resisted, even undermined, through the programmatic assertion that all are ultimately under the authority of the Word and are to be judged by it. The slogan Verbum Domini manet in aeternum ("The Word of the Lord abides in eternity") became emblematic for Lutheranism in the 1520s.6 Lutherans literally wore their ecclesiological hearts on their sleeves by embroidering the letters VDMA on their garments and even carving them on household implements.7

Given the importance of the notion of the "Word of the Lord" for the fledgling movement, it is not surprising that the first phase of Protestantism saw the appearance of a wide variety of resources designed to enable and encourage ordinary believers to become familiar with the Bible. Aware of the difficulties that many experienced in reading and making sense of the Bible, Protestant theologians and pedagogues produced a rich range of material that aimed to make an engagement with the Bible as simple and productive as possible. The role of the printing press in allowing the ready production and dissemination of these resources was of critical importance to the success of the Protestant enterprise at this point. There were four main categories of resources:

1. Biblical translations: Although a number of vernacular translations of the Bible were produced during the Middle Ages, these were often unreliable and occasionally even illegal. The democratizing agenda of Protestantism demanded that every believer have access to the text of the Bible; this necessitated its translation into the vernacular.

2. Biblical commentaries: From the outset, Protestantism produced a wide range of study aids for the interpretation of the Bible, of which the Bible "commentary" remains one of the most enduring. These works explained difficult ideas, commented on translation issues, addressed theological issues, and made practical applications. Some were primarily academic in tone; others were more devotional.

3. Lectionaries: Protestant sermons often take a strongly expository form, working through a biblical book and making connections between the text and the life of the church. Protestant churches that observe a liturgical year, such as Lutheranism and Anglicanism, use a "lectionary," which identifies biblical readings that are especially appropriate for the season of the year—Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and so forth—and are intended to serve as the basis for preaching.

4. Works of biblical theology: Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion was intended to be a guide to the ideas of the Bible that would allow its readers to build up a systematic overview of Christian doctrine through an engagement with the biblical text. Many others have fol-

lowed in its wake, aiming to weave together the themes of the Bible in order to give a systematic and coherent account of the themes of the Christian faith.

The Protestant sola Scriptura principle is linked with two subsidiary ideas. The "sufficiency of scripture," already noted, affirms that no doctrines other than those clearly set out in the Bible are necessary for salvation. The Anglican "Thirty-nine Articles" (1571) set out this position with classic precision in article 8: "Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation." Or, as the Princeton theologian Alexander Archibald Hodge put it: "[Protestants] affirm that every essential article of faith and rule of practice is clearly revealed in Scripture, or may certainly be deduced therefrom."

The second idea is that of the "clarity of scripture," sometimes also referred to as the "perspicuity of scripture."8 This holds that the basic meaning of the Bible can be ascertained by ordinary Christians. The perspicuity of scripture affirms the basic principle that its core teachings are clear and that those parts of it that are harder to understand can be interpreted in the light of clearer passages.

During the first phase of Protestantism, both of these ideas were vigorously disputed by Catholic writers. The Spanish Dominican writer Melchior Cano (1525-60) argued that the Bible is far from clear and that ordinary people need help with its interpretation. Protestantism, he argued, ends up making the individual believer the judge of the meaning of the Bible and has no place for the corporate judgment of the church. A similar criticism was made by Roberto Bellarmine (154160). It is obvious, he argued, that the Bible is difficult to interpret, a fact that Protestantism tried to conceal by following a herd instinct and pretending that this amounted to divine guidance.

There are some serious issues here, and we consider these later in this volume. It is a simple fact of Protestant history that in four major areas of biblical interpretation, the consensus has shifted between 1500 and 2000. We have already noted one of these—the changed understanding of Matthew 28:19. Were the apostles being charged with the task of evangelization (a virtually universal interpretation in sixteenth-century Protestantism), or was this responsibility being passed on to individual Christians in later generations (the dominant view since the nineteenth century)?

A further notion of importance is that of "adiaphora," or "matters of indifference." This basic concept, articulated out of necessity by Philip Melanchthon during the crises faced by Lutheranism in the late 1540s, acknowledges that sometimes the interpretation or application of the Bible is not clear. The first decades of the Reformation threw up many such issues: What form of dress should the clergy wear? What forms of worship should be adopted? Should hymns be sung in church? In such cases, Melanchthon argued, Protestants must be free to make their own judgments, while being respectful of the views of others. As the Puritan writer Richard Baxter (1615-91) put it: "In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity." We shall return presently to consider how Protestants interpreted and applied the Bible.

It is important to appreciate that Protestant readings of the Bible are often shaped by past controversies. An excellent example is to be found in Protestant attitudes to Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. Luther gave Mary a significant role in evangelical devotion, seeing her as an exemplary model of Christian discipleship.9 Yet Protestantism as a whole has been wary of giving Mary a significant role in the lives of believers, despite the New Testament's positive statements concerning her. Indeed, many scholars argue that Protestantism is characterized by the modesty, even ambivalence, of its statements about Mary. Why? The reason is simple: Protestants have reacted to what they have seen as Catholic overstatements about Mary, particularly in relation to her role in salvation.

This situation is now changing. As we pointed out earlier, Protestant perceptions of "the other," which have played a critically important role in shaping Protestant self-definition, have changed since 1960. No longer is Catholicism the enemy. As a result, Protestants have shown themselves willing to reexamine the Bible and, where necessary, correct any past interpretations of scripture that can now be seen to represent polemical reactions against Catholicism rather than faithful and obedient renderings of the text.10 The result has been a cautious yet decisive willingness to give Mary a place in Christian devotion—above all, at

Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter—that is more in line with the New Testament witness than with past Protestant polemics.

Changing attitudes among Protestants toward Mary is one sign of the greater openness among Protestants to Roman Catholicism in general, on the one hand, and on the other, remaining faithful to the fundamental Protestant principle of constantly reexamining existing readings of the Bible to ensure that these are faithful. Though some may find this paradoxical, the emerging interest in Mary is entirely consistent with Protestantism considered as a way of doing theology, even though it may cause tensions with Protestantism considered as a fixed body of attitudes from the past.

Although Protestants have always regarded the Bible as authoritative, various attempts have been made to formalize this authority by developing theories that would explain precisely what it is about the Bible that gives it such an authority.11 These theories date mainly from the later nineteenth century, when the proclamation of the dogma of papal infallibility in 1870 put Protestants under pressure to clarify their understanding of authority. One of the most influential such theories was set out by the Princeton Reformed theologian Benjamin B. Warfield.12

For Warfield, the unique authority of the Bible lay in the fact that it is inspired. "Inspiration is that extra-ordinary, supernatural influence ... exerted by the Holy Ghost on the writers of our Sacred Books, by which their words were rendered also the words of God, and, therefore, perfectly infallible." (It may be noted that Warfield's use of the term "infallible" to refer to the Bible may represent a response to the First Vatican Council's insistence that the pope is infallible.) Although Warfield is careful to stress that the humanity and individuality of biblical writers were not abolished by inspiration, he nevertheless insists that their humanity "was so dominated that their words became at the same time the words of God, and thus, in every case and all alike, absolutely infallible." Other theories of inspiration located this authority elsewhere.13 What is important, however, is that recognition of the authority of the Bible preceded any attempt to formalize that authority theoretically.

Yet this raises an important question, one that has been the subject of considerable debate between Catholics and Protestants since the sixteenth century. What range of writings does the canon of the Bible embrace?

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